Book Makes Case for New Murder Trial
What happens when your client, someone you just know is innocent, is convicted of first-degree murder?
First, says Laguna Hills attorney Gary Pohlson, you pull off the road driving home from the trial and cry your heart out. Then you spend the next five years--on your own money--trying to undo what happened.
Then, if you’re lucky, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist will take an independent interest in your case and uncover important evidence that you didn’t.
Which is what happened to Pohlson. He’s been trying to free former Kern County high school principal Pat Dunn, who is serving a life sentence for the 1992 murder of his wealthy wife, Sandy. Pohlson had almost run out of hope. But last week he filed a new motion for a retrial based on what Orange County author Edward Humes discovered about a key prosecution witness in the Dunn case.
Kern County prosecutors call it meaningless. Nevertheless, when you read what happened to Dunn in Humes’ new book, “Mean Justice,” you have a hard time believing this even occurred in the United States.
Pohlson wound up with the Dunn case because Dunn’s brother, paying for the defense, lived in Orange County. Here’s the basic problem Pohlson was up against:
Kern County sheriff’s investigators were convinced Dunn killed his wife in 1992, dumping her body in the desert 60 miles from Bakersfield. But they didn’t have enough evidence to file charges. Until Jerry Coble stepped forward.
Coble was a convicted felon and admitted heroin addict awaiting a new trial for grand larceny. He faced a return to prison for six years.
But suddenly Coble became the coincidence of a lifetime: The night Sandy Dunn disappeared, Coble told authorities, he happened to be right across the street from her house. And, he saw Pat Dunn come outside carrying something heavy in a white sheet. To his surprise, a hand loosely flopped out from the sheet.
Coble was upfront with investigators, and later with the Dunn jury: He wanted a deal on his own case in exchange for this information.
Any prosecutor I’ve ever come across would have laughed this joker right out of the office. What possible credibility could he have? Kern County Deputy Dist. Atty. John Somers, however, decided it was enough to make him a star prosecution witness.
“Coincidences do occur,” Somers told me in an interview. “I would not have put him on if I didn’t think he was truthful.”
Geez, based on what? Coble didn’t come forward for weeks. According to one of Coble’s own brothers, who also testified, that’s when Coble first read about the Dunn case in the newspaper and thought he could horn in for himself.
Pohlson tried his best to convince jurors that Coble was lying just to get his deal. It became a moot point after Dunn’s conviction.
Until Humes came along, researching “Mean Justice.”
Here’s what he discovered:
One, Pohlson should have been told by prosecutors about a report from a sheriff’s deputy who interviewed Coble right after his grand larceny arrest. The deputy quotes the suspect Coble saying: “I don’t want to go back [to prison]; I need a deal. I’ll do whatever it takes. . . . Just tell me what you want.”
Two, when Coble testified at the Dunn trial that he hadn’t committed any crimes since coming forth on Dunn, law enforcement had hard evidence that was a lie. A new case for check forgery was pending against Coble. But Pohlson was never told, as required by law. If he had been, he could have used that to further attack Coble’s reputation for truthfulness.
Prosecutor Somers disputes both: He says the first sheriff’s report was available to Pohlson. (Pohlson and Humes say no.) As for the forgery case against Coble, Somers said he was not even aware of it himself, so he couldn’t have told Pohlson.
Well, if Somers wasn’t in the know, whose fault was that? Someone in law enforcement had to be aware this star witness had a new legal problem.
Even so, Somers argues, “Coble had already told the jury he wanted a deal, that he was a heroin addict. He made no bones about it. How much more could you attack his credibility?”
Pohlson is thrilled that Humes breathed new life into the case. But in other ways, he’s not much happier with Humes’ book than Somers is. He believes the book is unfairly critical of his own performance. Humes acknowledged later that “it’s easy to second-guess when you’ve had a chance to review the trial transcript.” He lauds Pohlson for sticking by Dunn.
Defense money ran out long ago for Dunn. Pohlson has pursued motions on his own in recent years.
“I’ve never been more devastated about a case. Because Pat Dunn is absolutely innocent,” Pohlson said.
Humes, who first learned of the Dunn case through a Pohlson investigator, agrees: “I didn’t go into this case thinking Pat Dunn was innocent. I just went up there to see what happened. But there was no justice in this trial.”
The Dunn case is at the heart of Humes’ book, but its larger focus is what he calls widespread prosecutorial abuse of authority in Kern County. Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels is perhaps the county’s most powerful public official. Humes cites numerous other cases of convicted felons being freed by higher courts.
Jagels’ response, to the Bakersfield Californian: “The guy clearly hates our type of community.”
I think Humes just hates Jagels’ and Somers’ idea of a good witness.
After reading Humes’ book, listening to both Somers and Pohlson, I’m not prepared myself to say Pat Dunn is innocent. But how could any fair-minded person dispute he deserves a new trial? A trial without Jerry Coble.
Consider offering up this script: The person in all of Kern County who had the most to gain happens to be--by the most bizarre of coincidences--the one person who saw Pat Dunn carrying out a body?
In an Oliver Stone movie, maybe. Not in real life.
If Somers is going to beat Pohlson on his home turf, at least make it a level playing field.
Jerry Hicks’ column appears Monday and Thursday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 564-1049 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org